All the leading watchmaking houses specialise in an area that showcases their expertise, establishes their legitimacy and sustains their appeal. In the case of Zenith, the spotlight is on absolute precision.
There has been much talk of silicium lately. A material that is relatively new to watchmaking, silicium is today's designer's answer to the regulating balance for watches invented by Dutch mathematician, Christiaan Huygens, in 1674-75. Ultra hard and ultra pure, silicium offers amazing properties and a tremendous capacity for being reworked that guarantees precision down to less than a micron. Such a product would have been unthinkable just ten years ago and yet it has now increased creativity tenfold. Young engineers, refusing to be held back by outmoded watchmaking techniques, now continue to outrival each other in their efforts to propel traditional watchmaking into the third millennium.
Resetting the watchmaking paradigms
Che Guevara once said "The revolution is like a bicycle, when the wheels don't turn, it falls". In the case of watchmaking, it's obviously the same. Without progress, without vision, without projecting oneself into the future, there's no way you can install the present lastingly. It is this very vision that prompted Georges Favre-Jacot to create a manufacture in 1865 with a view to producing series watches of a consistently high level of precision. In doing so it positioned the brand with the legendary star-shaped logo alongside some of the most titled watchmaking houses in the field of chronometry (it boasts a total of 2,333 awards for chronometry in its illustrious career).
The chronograph was the perfect vehicle for upholding such an image of precision and so the brand launched the El Primero movement in 1969. With a frequency of 5 Hertz (36,000 vibrations per hour), it was the first high-frequency automatic chronograph calibre on the market. Thus, by introducing such an extraordinary instrument, to this day considered the most absolute expression of modernity by purists and way ahead of its time, Zenith further developed its renown in a sector that, in effect, had relatively few competitors, given the complexity of the task.
A new escapement with a vintage air
While others decided to reinvent the wheel, Zenith rose to the even more ambitious challenge of reworking the hairspring balance, the very heart of the classical mechanical watch, without which it ceases to beat. In the case of the Defy Lab, the R&D Institute at the Watch division of the LVMH group, headed up by its CEO, Guy Semon, simply gave up on the famous tightly wound hairspring balance combined with balance wheel, developed by Christiaan Huygens in 1674-1675. The invention appeared so ground-breaking that it was adopted by the entire profession just months after its creation. Obviously, several master craftsmen had made various attempts across the centuries to replace the spring prior to the development of silicium, but to no avail. The quality of the alloy (it is very difficult, if not impossible, to tell the actual content of the alloy in such a fine spring) depended very much on the precision of the watch and its resistance to magnetic fields.
We already know that some visionary technicians had already tried to integrate different escapements without lubrification and without balance springs. We have proof that some watchmakers in the 19th century used an escapement fitted with a spring blade attached to a tiny anchor without fork aimed at regulating the striking rate of the chiming hammers. The rate depended upon the depth to which the extremely wide-angled anchor pallets entered a simple toothed wheel. This method of functioning was replaced in more elaborate watchmaking executions by inertia brakes, which are often seen between the hammers on each side of the wheel train. It will be remembered that TAG Heuer had also used this escapement for the Concept Mikrogirder watch, but admittedly with different performances. The regulating mechanism designed for the "Dual Chain" on the Mikrogirder chronograph was, after all, not yet crafted in silicium.
Innovating for progress
Here, we see clearly that the regulating organ strongly inspired by what is found in pocket watches with quarter repeaters in particular, and reworked by the R&D Institute team, has been recalibrated to vibrate at 15 Hertz to guarantee accuracy to within 0.3 seconds either way per day. This astonishing mechanism combining a simple wheel performing complete revolutions with a spring blade coupled to a kind of anchor, means it is now possible, thanks to technology and the discovery of innovative materials (in this case oxidised monocrystalline silicium as for contemporary springs) to redesign the escapements of mechanical watches and guarantee lasting ultra-precision. It was rather like what Bulova attempted to do with the Accutron at the end of the 1960s, when an electrically stimulated tuning fork caused a tiny wheel with 360 teeth to turn via a kind of anchor device.
With the new escapement from the Zenith Defy Lab, the ultra-fast and therefore ultra-precise regulating organ housed in calibre reference ZO 342, is virtually insensitive to the effects of gravity, temperature and magnetic fields (performance 18 times superior to requirements of standard ISO-764). In fact, the 10 watches produced were certified at the Besançon office in France, and were awarded the famous Vipérine hallmark as proof of their accuracy. Please note that this escapement, already used in an archaic form in quarter- or five minute repeaters, and later on, in a more advanced design in Tag Heuer's Concept Mikrogirdrer, for the chronograph function, is now used to regulate a simple watch. And this is what makes this mechanical system an innovation.
A new composite metal
For such a major project and one that is likely to open new development paths for series watches, a suitably sized case was required. Measuring an impressive 44 mm in diameter, the case is made in Aeronith, an aluminium composite thereby ensuring an ultra-lightweight case for the same volume. This new composite is 2.7 times lighter than titanium. It is also 1.7 times lighter than the aluminium alone and 10 % lighter than carbon. The finished product, the result of injecting foam into marine quality aluminium (AL 6082) combined with an entirely biocompatible polymer that is resistant to photo-luminescent (UVA-UVB) and chemical agents, is impressive.
This unique assembly, ultra-light and machined in the manner of a precious watch case, lends an uncommon and original appearance to this innovative watch, since the pattern created by the metal foam is never the same twice. These pieces are of a cutting-edge design and are available in a limited edition of just ten. However, the R&D Institute headed up by CEO, Guy Semon, sees only the bigger picture and intends to develop this escapement for other series models… The team is already onto it… Work in progress!